Thursday, May 2, 2019

Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal (somewhat spoilerish)

Is Skin Deep, Is Fatal (1965) by H. R. F. Keating takes place in the world of beauty pageants. On the eve of the Miss Valentine Pageant awarded from the Star Bowl Ballroom, two deaths take place. First, Fay Curtis, mother of one of the contestants, is found dead--apparently a suicide. But before she died she sent a message to the beauty pageant's organizer Teddy Pariss. Pariss is then stabbed to death with a golden paper knife whose handle is shaped in the form of a naked woman. It's up to the British police to discover whether the beauty pageant is at the root of the deaths and what the connection, if any, between Curtis and Pariss was.

Police Constable Peter Lassington has been hoping to break into the ranks of the CID, so when he gets word of Fay's death from her maid he heads over to see if he can get in on the action. CID Detective Constable Jack Spratt is already on the case and he and Lassington go way back. Back far enough that Spratt knows Lassington is looking to muscle in for some credit. The reader soon knows that Spratt is right as Lassington hangs around after Spratt leaves and discovers that while Fay didn't leave a suicide not, she did send that last minute message. So off he goes to the Star Bowl Ballroom to see if he can get hold of the note. But he's too's already been delivered to Teddy and Teddy's not sharing. Lassinton leaves disgruntled. Later that evening, he gets a phone call telling him someone's trying to break into the safe at the Star Bowl. He hotfoots it over there to find no one has called him and no one is breaking into a safe, but Teddy Pariss is very dead from knife to the back.

Enter Scotland Yard's Superintendent Ironside...a man who is looking forward to retirement and who hopes his final murder case will be an easy one. His usual assistant is out of commission, so he claims Lassington and Spratt as assistants for the investigation. Keating begins the book as if Lassington is going to be our hero, but it soon becomes apparent that Ironside is the man to watch. He spots clues that neither of our constables even notice and has a running commentary on how they ought to handle an investigation (supposing they are ever trusted to be in charge of one). 

Spoilery bits ahead!

I've heard a lot of good things about Keating. So far, my experience of his fiction has been limited to a few short stories (in various collections) and this standalone police procedural. I have to say I have yet to be overly impressed. The short stories were okay--but, as evidence of how great they were (or weren't) I can't tell you anything about any of them. As far as this novel goes...well, for starters, the murderer's method of attempting to cover his/her tracks is straight-up lifted from a rather famous Agatha Christie plot. Seriously. Second, the characters. Cardboard cutouts of particularly unlikable sorts. We don't mind that the slimy Teddy Pariss has met his maker. We're disgusted with both police constables. We don't particularly mind that we've just met Superintendent Ironside and he's going to retire and we'll never see him again. We don't care who wins the Miss Valentine contest and aren't at all surprised that some cheating went on to try and gain the title (stuffed brassieres, any one?). 

I have Keating's The Perfect Murder sitting on my TBR pile--which, by the way was, according to the blurb on the back of this book, "proclaimed Best Crime Novel of 1964." I certainly hope it's more entertaining than this rather dreary tale of beauty pageant skulduggery. and a half. And that may be a bit generous.

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